Another Ninth Circuit panel has roiled the class certification waters, this time rejecting a class action settlement because the district court did not conduct a meaningful analysis of predominance.
We have repeatedly discussed in this space the ongoing debate among the federal courts about ascertainability—a red-hot topic in class action litigation these days. (For a more detailed look at our views on the ascertainability doctrine, see the amicus brief (pdf) that we filed on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers in support of a pending cert petition.) That topic—and the debate among the lower courts—shows no sign of slowing down, as evidenced by new decisions issued by the Second, Sixth, and Third Circuits over the past two months. The central takeaway from these decisions is that while ascertainability is not a panacea for defendants facing consumer class actions, the doctrine (or variations on the ascertainability theme) should help defeat class actions in many circuits when class members cannot be identified without individualized inquiries.
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently issued an interesting decision (pdf) denying class certification in 15 consolidated consumer class actions against the maker of 5-hour ENERGY drinks.
Today’s decision by the Supreme Court in Microsoft Corp. v. Baker puts an end to a tactic used by plaintiffs in the Ninth Circuit to manufacture an immediate appeal of an order denying class certification. When a federal district court grants or denies class certification, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(f) allows the losing party to ask the court of appeals for permission to appeal immediately. Otherwise, the parties must litigate the case to a final judgment—the named plaintiffs’ individual claims if certification has been denied, or the class claims if certification has been granted—to obtain appellate review of the district court’s class certification determination. But the Ninth Circuit created an exception to this rule by authorizing a plaintiff who has had class certification denied to dismiss his or her individual claims with prejudice and then file an appeal from that self-generated judgment.
After the oral arguments in Baker, it seemed likely that the Supreme Court would reject that exception. And that is exactly what the Court decided today. Much more interesting is how they got there: Although all eight participating Justices agreed on the outcome, they took different approaches to the question presented. Continue Reading Supreme Court rejects end runs around Rule 23(f) by use of “voluntary dismissal” tactic
Earlier today, the Supreme Court heard oral argument (pdf) in Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, a case that raises complicated questions about federal appellate jurisdiction and Article III standing, but ultimately involves an important practical question in class action litigation: Can a named plaintiff engineer a right to an immediate appeal of the denial of class certification by voluntarily dismissing his or her claims with prejudice and appealing from the resulting judgment?
From the argument, it was clear that a number of Justices believe that the answer should be “no.” As Justice Ginsburg pointed out several times, the committee charged with amending the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure crafted Rule 23(f) to give courts discretion to decide whether to allow immediate appeals of orders granting or denying class certification. But plaintiffs maintain that they should be free to challenge the denial of certification immediately by appealing from what their counsel described as a “manufactured final judgment.” In other words, as Justice Ginsburg put it, “any time … that a class action is brought against a corporation, [Rule] 23(f) is out the window.”
As discussed below, there are many ways in which the Court could decide the issue. That said, businesses should be cautiously optimistic that the Court will reverse the Ninth Circuit and thus reject a dysfunctional regime in which class-action plaintiffs can appeal the denial of class certification while defendants remain able to appeal orders granting class certification only by grace.
Can you have a class action if class members can’t reliably be found? That question is at the heart of the debate over ascertainability—one that has divided the federal courts. Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit weighed in, holding in Briseno v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. (pdf) that plaintiffs need not demonstrate “an administratively feasible way to identify class members [as] a prerequisite to class certification.”
That conclusion is disappointing.
A peculiar thing happened after the Supreme Court announced its decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (pdf) on Monday.
Even though the Court ruled in favor of Spokeo—vacating the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the plaintiff had standing to sue and holding that the court of appeals had applied a legal standard too generous to plaintiffs—both sides declared victory. (Full disclosure: I argued on behalf of Spokeo in the Supreme Court.)
What’s going on?
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), a court may certify a suit for damages as a class action when “there are questions of law or fact common to the class” that “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” Similar certification standards apply when a plaintiff seeks to certify a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Yesterday, in its highly anticipated decision in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo (pdf), the Supreme Court affirmed the certification of an FLSA collective action where the evidence tying class members together was a study of a representative sample of similarly situated workers.
We’ve often argued that when the principal rationale for approving a low-value class settlement is that the claims are weak, that is a signal that the case should not have been filed as a class action in the first place. The Second Circuit recently reached that exact conclusion when considering a proposed class settlement in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) case, holding that the putative class couldn’t be certified and that the FDCPA claims should be dismissed.
The Eighth Circuit recently issued a decision reversing class certification for lack of commonality.
In Smith v. ConocoPhillips Pipe Line Co., the Eighth Circuit considered a class action proceeding on a nuisance theory against the owner of a pipeline. The plaintiffs, who owned property near the pipeline and were suing on behalf of a class of landowners, contended that the pipeline was a nuisance because they feared environmental contamination. After the district court certified the class, the Eighth Circuit granted a petition for review and reversed.
The Eighth Circuit explained that without evidence of contamination, “the putative class fear of contamination … is not a sufficient injury to support a claim for common law nuisance….” And the plaintiff landowners could not bridge the gap by pointing to evidence that other landowners allegedly had experienced actual contamination. The putative class, the court explained, had not experienced the requisite common interest.